How can a company raise good will in its community? There are plenty of responses: donate products to those in need; volunteer employee time to community programs; sponsor a charity by giving money. All good options, but all also do little to address the final target of any philanthropy campaign: your customers.

Having customers do good, more so than implementing internally, can actually build favor in the marketplace. A 2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study found that 83 percent of Americans wished more of the products, services, and retailers they use would support good causes. And 80 percent of consumers would switch to a brand that supports a cause when price and quality are equal.

On top of the visible marketing value, engaging customers in philanthropy also costs very little once you find the right charities and non-profits. Read on to find out what to do, where to turn, and how helping your customers to do good can, in turn, help you.

Encouraging Customers to Do Good: Tap Customers as a Resource

The No. 1 place to teach customers about opportunities and encourage them to give is in the store—at the register, on the checkout line, and through sponsorships. This type of cause marketing, often referred to as a point-of-sale approach, taps your stream of face-to-face interaction with customers for a social purpose.

"Our greatest resource is our access to our guests," says Laura Trust, co-president of Finagle A Bagel, a bagel retailer and wholesaler based in Boston. "If you have a few thousand people walking through your door every day, it generates a fair amount of return for a company my size."

For Finagle A Bagel, the return came from simple coin canisters flanking the registers of their nine retail locations in New England. Customers donated leftover or loose change to research and programs at the Boston Medical Center. The change started to add up little by little and, in 18 months, the company was able to write a check for $25,000 to the hospital. "It's amazing how much change you can collect from your guests," Trust says.

Making the effort to collect change or post pinup icons behind the register may seem fruitless, painstaking, or at worst, invasive. But as we see with examples like Finagle A Bagel, the money does pile up over time. Moreover, it will propel your business into a pillar of altruism within the community. "The response from customers has been wonderful," Trust says. "People want to be charitable and are by nature, particularly when you're a local company and they know the money is going towards a local organization."

Encouraging Customers to Do Good: Align With Partner Organizations

A partnership like the one between Finagle A Bagel and Boston Medical Center illustrates just how the process should work—as a partnership. Bigger non-profits want bigger checks—something small business can't readily serve up—and are often less attuned to the needs of the community. As the Cone survey revealed, consumers were more inclined to give when it had a tangible impact in their local communities.

Joe Waters, the director of cause marketing at the Boston Medical Center, has cultivated relationships with a number of Boston-area business owners like Trust. Despite being the number five hospital in Boston, BMC and its cause-marketing raise huge sums due to the dedication from small businesses, Waters says. He knows it might take a little longer and require a little extra legwork, but these businesses and their customers represent the voice of the local philanthropic community.

Waters' website,, features such companies that encourage customers to make huge differences for the hospital. A favorite of his is Ocean State Job Lot, a 95-store clothing retailer in New England, which has eclipsed $1 million in donations since 2004. "These folks aren't Walmart, they're not Target, they're not Starbucks, and they've raised a lot of money," Waters says.

Partnerships on the local, small business level typically require more creativity—and patience—than simply signing over a check to a charity. The biggest payoff comes when you align values and collaborate to produce visible results for customers.

Encouraging Customers to Do Good: Gain Exposure Online—Technology and Social Media

Waters, as host of the leading site on cause marketing, keeps a close watch on the latest online and technological innovations in the space. He says social services like Foursquare and technology like QR codes may revolutionize in-store philanthropy in the future.

That such strategies haven't yet been fully realized doesn't come as a surprise. Most businesses are still trying to figure out how to monetize them. But Waters envisages a time where a customer can walk into a store, check-in through a location service, and view offers to support charities or make donations. Small spurts of success have already taken hold through CauseWorld and Foursquare Check-In For Charity campaigns at this year's SXSW Festival. Likewise, with QR codes, customers can gain more access to the causes they are supporting.

"The big complaint about cause marketing is that people go up to the register and it's very transactional: you give a dollar, and you don't know what you're giving to," Waters says. "Here's an opportunity where you can go into a store, you pick up a product, you can scan the QR code on the bottom with your iPhone and actually see the village in Africa that you are helping."

In a similar vein, companies are starting to leverage social media outlets to promote donation campaigns or volunteer programs. American Eagle, for example, has partnered with SCVNGR, a mobile game company, to engage customers in challenges to raise cash for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Such campaigns align the brand with the increasingly socially conscious views of its customers and spread all-around beneficence for the organization.

Social media coupled with de rigueur corporate social responsibility (CSR) have made the Web rife with opportunities to engage customer activism. You can embed donation widgets on your site; you can organize Tweetup or Meetup volunteer groups; or you can spread compassion through blog posts or content on humanitarian projects.

Even online retailers, lacking the face-to-face advantage of brick and mortars, can get into the mix by allowing customers to make donations to the charities of their choice. One such service,, partners with more than 800 online retailers and 44,000 non-profits. And eBay's Giving Works program has raised close to $200 million for charities over the globe.

Encouraging Customers to Do Good: Hit the Ground Running

As we've seen, checkout donations, pinup donations and the like have a tremendous benefit for retail brands. But what about non-retail? How do you get your customers or clients to do good if there's less of an element of physical transaction?

That's where exposure through social media and volunteer events become crucial. Savvy companies are starting to break down the traditional stigma between employee and customer, rather attempting to bridge the values of each.

"The direction all business is moving is toward a deeper level of customer engagement in the community," says Lisa Guyon, executive director of Building Impact, a non-profit that connects building tenants with volunteer opportunities in Boston. "It's finding that intersection with customers between your products, your service, and the community and they issues that they care about."

Volunteering employees through a program such as Building Impact marks only the first step in stimulating customer action. To reach the next level, Guyon says, you have to then promote that good will to your customers and encourage participation through social media.

Of course, you also want customers to feel like they are doing good simply by buying your products or using your services. This doesn't require the company be built around a socially conscious model. Zipcar, for example, displays its social concern by hosting toy drives and environmental responsibility events. It's important to target causes that mold to your company's mission and product categories.

"Think about where you and your client overlap and find out matters to them," Guyon says. "It has to be really organic. It has to exist naturally within the products you sell, make sense for company, and resonate with the customers."